If you’re any regular reader of mine, you’ll know that I’m very into the whole debate surrounding whether or not we should be reading men vs. women writers, white people vs. minorities, the “classics” vs. YA. It all seems to come down to accusations of book snobbery, or whether it’s OK to be purely “literary” anymore, or making a political statement through your reading choices. It seems everyone has a (very) strong opinion about it. Including me (see this and this).
That’s why I found this think piece from Saladin Ahmed – The Great Internet Debate Over Not Reading White Men – so fascinating and great. First, I like that he’s calling his bi-monthly column on Gizmodo “The Kerfuffler”, mainly because I think “kerfuffle” is such a great word.
But first, the set-up:
The internet has been abuzz recently with debates over reading lists and reading habits. Writer K. Tempest Bradford caused a bit of a stir when she challenged readers to stop reading straight white cisgendered male authors for a year. Sunili Govinnage generated her share of outrage when she reported on her year spent deliberately not reading white authors. And in late 2014, the phenomenally successful #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign took Tumblr and Twitter by storm, sparking a conversation about which books get published and read, and which don’t, and what these choices are doing to children’s literature.
Ahmed goes on to present probably the most fair assessment of this debate, noting the silly retorts about “reverse racism”, while also admitting that he, of all people, doesn’t like to be told what to read.
Yet, he makes an interesting (and fair) point regarding the politics of the publishing industry, noting that despite the best efforts of modern publishers and literary agents, the overwhelming majority of “big” American authors still remain white and male. Which is true. He also makes the astute observation that:
one could spend one’s life reading only books by straight white men, and never run out of wonderful material. But this is akin to spending a lifetime’s worth of vacations visiting only Disneyland. Whether or not one agrees with ‘the SJWs’ that [reading only straight white men is] ethically contemptible, it is, in a word, boring.
Which is also very, very true.
Still, I did find myself with some gentle (as opposed to virulent and defensive) issues with Ahmed’s arguments. I agree (very strongly) with his statement that he doesn’t like being told what to read. Because despite the fact that I sometimes look to established lists of “great books” when deciding what to read next, I react very strongly when someone tells me that I should be reading X, and not reading Y. Who are you to dictate my tastes in books? Who are you to act as the morality police when it comes to my reading choices? There are people who primarily read fluffy romances, or erotic novels, or books written by Dan Brown. I may not agree with their reading choices, but I say we all deserve the right to read what we want. So, why get up in arms about me reading a lot of dead white guys?
Now I say that with the stipulation that I don’t read JUST dead white guys. In fact, I read a lot of authors who are very much alive, female, and a variety of races. That’s because when I select the books I read, I’m not thinking about the author’s race or gender, I’m thinking about the book. I’m thinking about the story. I’m thinking about whether the book is written well, and has the power to change my life. The ability to do that is OBVIOUSLY not limited to white men, which is why I’m obsessed with the works of Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri, among others.
But, there are a lot of white, male authors who can do that as well. Many of which do it quite well. Many of them were written long enough ago to qualify that author for being “dead.” So yeah, dead white guys – they write good books, too. So I’m going to read them.
I know what many of you are probably thinking: Saying that you don’t think about the author is like claiming you’re color blind to racism. Listen, I get it. We all have biases, and as Ahmed mentions, we tend to default to what we know. As a former English major and a lover of literary classics, I’ve “known” as lot of dead white guys, so it’s no wonder I still like them. But – and this is just my personal experience – I’ve never felt that it was overly difficult to “choose” to read authors of color, or women authors, or LGBT authors. In fact, it’s easy, especially if the books they write are good.
Essentially, Ahmed argues that choosing to read books written by traditionally marginalized groups is a political statement – it’s a personal choice that helps to (if only slightly) move toward a more egalitarian economy in which every author has a fair shake at participating in the national literary conversation. I get that, I really do. But I just can’t support the notion that my reading choices are political statements – because they’re not. Really guys, I promise. Listen, I consider myself a strong, left-wing feminist. I believe in this stuff. But reading and literature have a certain curative, magical property for me. Reading is my escape from the everyday, and it’s the way I continue to grow and enrich myself. It’s so difficult for me to define the pleasure and joy I derive from reading, especially to my non-reader friends. Reading (for pleasure) has made me the person I am today, and continues to make me a better person.
Politics, on the other hand, is dirty, and divisive, and fraught with self-serving ugliness. I can’t imagine bringing that into my reading life. Listen, I want the publishing scene in 2015 to be perfectly egalitarian and fair. I want to continue reading amazing authors from other countries, other races, men and women. I just want to read great books. But to keep reading pure for me, I have to keep politics out of it. I refuse to make my reading life a political statement, no matter how urgent the situation is.
At the very least, I know there some awesome people in the literary world who are fighting this good fight, and I’ll continue to support them. And I’ll continue to pick up books written by amazing women authors, and amazing writers of color. But I’ll continue to read books written by white men, because, even if we don’t want to admit it, those books can also change your life as well.